Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Live From Space View Park
My wife and I have been telling ourselves that we'd go see a Space Shuttle launch since well before we were married, or even engaged. With only half a dozen Shuttle missions remaining before the orbiters are retired from service, we finally headed south on Sunday, and after an overnight stopover in Lake City, Florida, arrived in Titusville around lunchtime on Monday.
Titusville is very much "old Florida": most of it looks like the Panhandle of my youth, before high-rises and four-lanes. It sits across the Indian River from Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center, and years ago the city installed Space View Park, a narrow strip of manicured, terraced public land pointing directly at Pad 39A.
We spread out a beach blanket, and settled in with our dog among hundreds of other shuttle-watchers to wait for the launch. Given the Shuttles' long history of scrubs and delays, we were seriously concerned that the whole trip would be for nothing. If the cloud cover had been too low, or a random sensor in the wrong place had failed and the launch was scrubbed, even for a day, we'd have missed the launch. We couldn't spare another day off.
But instead, the weather was perfect, and STS-129 turned out to have the smallest number of launch faults in the Shuttle program's history. And the launch... well, see for yourself:
I'm still a little surprised at just how exhilarating it was, even though I shouldn't be. I've been a space buff since I was a very small child, and this was the first time I'd ever seen a full-scale rocket of any kind launched. But I figured, hey, I'm over forty, I've flown in a fighter jet and spent years doing live flight tests of missiles. I've seen scores of shuttle launches on TV, I studied that orbiter backwards and forwards in college, and barring a mishap, nothing was going to happen that would be any kind of surprise to me.
And so I was entirely taken aback (although pleasantly) by how great it was. We happened to be next to a local news crew from Orlando, and when the young reporter (who likely wasn't even alive when the Shuttles started flying in 1981) asked me what I thought after the launch, I told him about my grandfather, who'd spent 30 years at NASA in Huntsville, but never got to see a launch in person, and found myself getting choked up. "It's going to be a real shame when that"--I pointed at the lingering pillar of exhaust smoke across the sound--"doesn't happen any more."
There are only five launches remaining, and then for good or for ill, the Shuttle era will be over. If you can make it, go see it while you still can.